How a 200-person party with an international guest made a CT town come together and 'fight' COVID

Photo of Katrina Koerting

WESTPORT — First Selectman Jim Marpe still remembers standing on the steps outside of town hall a year ago — maskless and surrounded by other officials — announcing schools and various aspects of town government would have to close.

COVID-19 had come to Westport.

“This was going to be the ultimate test,” Marpe said.

Days later, the town would be thrust into the national spotlight as news spread that someone from South Africa attended a party in Westport while contagious. He tested positive when he returned home, a result others at the party would soon have as well. Contact tracing became a complicated and daunting task since partygoers had since scattered to their homes.

The numbers quickly climbed, and by March 16, 2020, Westport’s 20 cases would account for nearly half of the state’s total.

But as the national story looked at people partying in Westport, Marpe said a different story of compassion and creativity was emerging among residents to minimize COVID’s spread.

“When Westport realized it was as vulnerable as anywhere else, they acted smartly and compassionately to come together to fight this,” Marpe said.

He said most realized this wasn’t of anyone’s making, and no one understood how it was transmitted then.

The cases weren’t just appearing in Westport. Gov. Ned Lamont closed schools and other places that could contribute to the spread of COVID, rolling out the first of many restrictions.

Now, a year later, more than 526,000 people have died in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Connecticut reports more than 7,750 deaths due to COVID, with 29 of them in Westport.

Green Farms Church will hold a special ceremony on Saturday at Veterans Green to honor those who died.

Westport’s first death came on April 2.

“That’s when it hit in a different way,” Marpe said, adding he knew it would eventually happen in Westport but he couldn’t help wondering if there was something he could have done to prevent it. “I remember that as being a very sobering moment.”

He said, as public officials, everything they do has to be geared towards protecting life and making people’s lives better.

“I’m fortunate to have a staff that has that frame of mindset,” he said.

Preparing for it

Town officials had been preparing for the coronavirus for months before it actually appeared in Westport. The emergency management team began meeting regularly in January to plan for what would happen, protocols for first responders and what would trigger the different mitigations.

Both the human services and health directors played vital roles in that, Marpe said.

They even held a COVID seminar on March 8, which about 200 people attended and more watched remotely.

Masks were still not required, and officials believed distance played a role in the spread, Marpe said.

“I think back to that time and go ‘Wow, what were they thinking?’” he said of the CDC’s guidance. “It seems so obvious now.”

Westport officials already had some experience with a pandemic. A resident had possibly been exposed to Ebola while on a trip to Africa a few years ago. Nothing had come of it, but it gave him and his staff some practice. Even with that, COVID raised a lot of questions.

“What do we do now and how can we make sure the functions of government continue — can we continue?” Marpe said.

The emergency team usually meets to handle winter or tropical storms; the storm comes and then they coordinate the effort to dig out, a process that is over in a matter of days.

“This one is with us every day, and the rules change every day,” he said.

The team still meets though it’s now weekly instead of daily.

Adapting

Marpe said their planning and the technology investments allowed employees to work from home as they switched to a cohort model and restricted the public town hall. They figured out how to hold town meetings remotely and still get public comment. By early April, even all 36 members of the Representative Town Meeting were able to meet online.

“I look back and that was an activity that gave me real optimism,” Marpe said.

They also set up a tent outside so the town clerk could continue meeting with residents.

Marpe said one of the scariest days came the weekend of March 14 when crowds packed Compo Beach, prompting him to close the beach parking lots and playgrounds.

“We were just looking at each other saying, ‘How can we control this?’” he said.

Sara Harris, Westport’s operations director, said it’s hard to say what they would do differently because the decisions made then were based on the available guidance.

“We all did our best with the information we had at the time,” she said.

Businesses, restaurants, organizations and residents got creative and adapted too.

Places of worship went online or outside. Restaurants adapted to carry-out and then outdoor dining. Other businesses changed their offerings to meet a need.

Remarkable Theater started a drive-in movie in a parking lot and began partnering with other nonprofits to help those in need.

Residents and businesses rallied around each other helping those infected with COVID or struggling in other ways.

“A lot of generosity was displayed,” Marpe said.

One thing that has helped the economy is that many Westport residents have managerial roles or jobs in finance and other professions that allowed them to work from home, he said

“People were still employed,” Marpe said. “They just weren’t getting on the train every morning.”

Looking forward

While much is still unknown — like if there will be a Memorial Day parade or Fourth of July fireworks — things are already starting to look brighter.

The schools have held two vaccination clinics for educators in Westport, Weston and Easton. As of Monday, the state reported about half of people age 55 and older had received vaccines. Some of the town’s spring and summer recreation events will be offered again after being put on hold last year. Marpe has also seen an uptick and traffic.

“Something is coming back,” he said. “... I don’t know if there will be normal. I think normal will look different.”

He suspects more people will take advantage of working from home and maybe only go in a couple of times a week instead of five.

Marpe has seen more families out going for walks or jogs together during the pandemic, something he hopes continues.

And as the state reopens, Marpe is looking to the next task.

“The next challenge is how do we get back into public meeting mode?” he said.

kkoerting@newstimes.com